EAST LANSING - A shared Big Ten title?
Not good enough.
That was the sentiment shared by senior captains Draymond Green and Austin Thornton when asked about the unique opportunity facing the No. 5 Michigan State Spartans as they close out the regular season at 4 p.m. on Sunday at home against No. 10/11 Ohio State.
And because of MSU's loss at Indiana on Tuesday, the Spartans don't want to roll into the Big Ten Tournament on a down note, especially in a game that means so much to the season and to the program.
"You definitely don't want to go in with a two-game losing streak. Especially losing at home,'' Green said. "We just have come out and make smart plays, and come out and play to win and not to lose. Just play. Do what you've been doing all year. Whenever you try to play not to lose, that's when you're going to lose. You're going to make mistakes you're not trying to make.
"And what better situation. Although you're mad that you lost to Indiana, what better situation to win a Big Ten championship outright?''
The Spartans have already clinched a share of the conference crown but to be part of a senior class that could leave East Lansing with two outright Big Ten titles is both exciting and necessary in the eyes of Green and Thornton, two leaders that have been instrumental in guiding a young Spartan team to the brink of an historic accomplishment in a long line of impressive accomplishments for MSU's men's basketball program. Green and Thornton would become the first players in MSU history to be part of two outright Big Ten championship teams, if the Spartans win on Sunday. They were part of MSU's outright Big Ten championship team of 2009.
"There's no question that we want it outright, we want it to be ours and the fact that we're able to come here (at Breslin) and play it on our home court, in our last home game is pretty special,'' Thornton said. "We're really focused on this game. We need to do a much better job of executing, both offensively and defensively than we did at Indiana.''
In order to avoid possibly sharing that crown with Michigan, the Spartans will have to knock off the Buckeyes for a second time, sweeping the season series for the first time since the 2008-09 season.
The Spartans will also have to recover from a loss in which they did not play very well as a team.
"We just weren't very good. We didn't execute offensively, we didn't defend and we got outplayed,'' Green said.
"There's a lot of things that you can take away from it but the bottom line is that we weren't very good and you have to give Indiana some credit for that.''
Of course, there are many factors that will have to come into play as the Spartans celebrate a Senior Day that will honor Green, Thornton, Brandon Wood and Anthony Ianni.
And one of the most important aspects will once again involve sophomore center Adreian Payne providing a performance similar to the best one of his Spartan career, when MSU traveled to Columbus on Feb. 11th and upset the Buckeyes, 58-48 on their home court, ending OSU's 39-game home winning streak.
Payne scored a career-high 15 points on 6-for-6 shooting and added four rebounds, two blocks and two steals.
"At this point, there's not much to say to him,'' Green said of the possibility of Payne repeating his earlier outing against the Buckeyes. "He knows that was his best game of the year, we all know it was his best game of the year. We just need him to respond and play like that again.''
But even if Payne can't repeat his earlier performance against OSU, Thornton said that MSU has enough talent to get the job done to make sure this group of seniors leaves with a strong legacy of two outright Big Ten titles.
"That would just be amazing,'' Thornton said. "Coach talks about leaving your footprint and that would be one hell of a footprint to leave for us. Day Day and I have been through a lot together and to have something like that happen, would be really special.''
More than anything, it's an opportunity Green doesn't want he and his teammates to let pass by.
"It's definitely a great scenario. It can be a storybook ending. That's how you want it to be. You just have to come and play like it is,'' Green concluded. "My job and Austin's job is to make sure everybody's on the same page. Making sure all of the other guys understand what's at stake.''
There were some who questioned Austin Thornton's decision to turn down mid-major scholarship offers to walk on at MSU five seasons ago.
And when he was promptly redshirted upon his arrival in 2007, many thought he would never be much more than a sub who gave MSU five to 10 minutes a game, if he was lucky.
But an eventual scholarship and captaincy later, Thornton has more than made his mark on a program that has numerous memorable contributors to its success in the past.
"There's no question that this year has been different just because I've had a lot more to do with it, on the court and in the actual games," Thornton said. "Before, I was just delegated to the scout team, the practice squad and didn't play much, so there's no question that it means a lot more to me personally but you still can't take away those special moments that I had in those years past.''
Thornton, who struggled with his confidence and his shot earlier in the season, has rebounded to be not only a competent scorer but develop into a good leader as well.
"The best way to describe is just that it's been an interesting ride," he said. "Going from being relegated to the bench to coming into this year and being put in the role as a captain, playing a lot of minutes and not being quite as a successful at the beginning of the season as I wanted it to go. I really just had to stay confident in myself and my teammates helped me out a lot. They stayed confident in me, knew the work I was putting in and they knew it would eventually pay off. So, it's just been fun and I'm just glad to have been a part of that and this year with this team.''
He will enter his final home game against Ohio State with career-high averages in points (5.2) and rebounds (3.3) starts (9) and minutes played (20.4).
"It's been and fun and interesting ride and I'm very excited for the next chapter to begin but I think the better time to ask me that will be on Sunday after the game," he said. "Right now, we're very business-like because we want to make sure we take care of our business, get the 'W' and this Big Ten title outright. We definitely want to have it all to ourselves.''
Blood In, Blood Out
Four schools in five years is really not the recipe you want to follow in establishing a strong college basketball legacy but when Brandon Wood takes his final bow on Sunday, it will complete a strange and sometimes difficult journey that carried him from Southern Illinois to junior college to Valparaiso and finally Michigan State.
Despite all of the stops, Wood said he will leave MSU as a lifetime Spartan and a Big Ten champion. Something he never could have fathomed when he first set out on his college basketball journey five years ago.
"I never would have imagined this," he said. "It would have been a dream and to be honest, that dream kind of withered away going through the college changes that I have. I mean that was a dream, probably coming out of high school but to realize that I could work hard enough to work my way up and get to this point to be able to play here at a program like this, I never would have pictured this in a 1,000 years.''
Despite that dreamy realization, Wood said he is secure in believing that he took advantage of his last opportunity to close out his college career on a strong note.
"Me and everybody else, we can still get better in a lot of areas of our games but I think I did show, for the most part, that I could play and compete, night in and night out, on this level," he said. "Obviously, it was an adjustment, switching roles, but it's not over yet.''
Wood, who enters MSU's final regular season game as MSU's fourth-leading scorer, averaging eight points a game, made it clear that the transition to becoming a Spartan and playing at this level was aided by former Spartans like Mateen Cleaves, whom he had talks with early on after his arrival.
"From day one, when I first came here, the image that always pops in my mind is when I first met Mateen at the kids' camp," Wood said. "It was the first time I met him and I got a chance to talk with him and he just told me that it's really just, 'blood in, blood out,' and 'once you're a Spartan, you're a Spartan for life,' so no matter what, whether it was just advice about basketball or advice about life, he told me I could always count on him and the other people that came through here in the past to be able to reach out to and that's when I really felt like I was a Spartan.
"Since then, I was able to embrace being a Spartan and just representing it best as I can. I'm just trying to continue the tradition just like they did.''
Wood did have a moment of clarity though, involving his diet and the added cuisine possibilities he has been privy to at a school like MSU.
"Going through those different stages, going from SIU to a junior college, where I'm riding on the smaller buses to three-hour away games and just eating McDonald's after the game on the way back to our apartments. Now, getting to this stage, where you get so much more gear, so much better food, I appreciate all of that stuff. Whenever they offer us food, I'm the first one there. So in that regard, I do feel blessed to be here.''
Just Being Honest
While most players might shy away from the talk surrounding postseason accolades, Green had no problem expressing his emotions when asked about what it would mean to be named the Big Ten's Player of the Year.
"That's always something that you want to win. I'm not going to lie and say that it doesn't matter.''
While many think he's already got it wrapped up, Green wants to make sure he and his teammates wrap up a conference title first.
"It would be an honor to win the Big Ten Player of the Year but that's not my focus. My focus is to come out here and win games and win an outright Big Ten championship. You do those things and everything else will take car of itself.''